Bringing up a Bilingual Baby

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    Oct 12, 2012
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I’ve been in southern Italy for almost 5 years and in that time I’ve learned Italian (despite the mistakes I still make when trying to figure out which verb tense to use) and had the big Italian wedding. The next logical step you could say was to have a baby. Giving birth in an Italian hospital was a daunting prospect if what I’d heard about the lack of care was anything to go by. Then my pregnancy due date came … and went. I was still pregnant and incredibly tired. When would my baby put in her much awaited appearance? When Melissa Eufemia (pronounced Eh-oofame-ia after my late mother-in-law) came into the world 5 days late on 20th June and a healthy 3.8 kg, I realised that the seemingly never-ending pregnancy and pain that accompanied it was all worth it.

Although the Italian hospital experience wasn’t as bad as I had been led to believe, it still left something to be desired. I was in a room with 2 other women. Every evening saw an onslaught of relatives talking loudly and cooing over the babies; hardly a peaceful entry into the world for a newborn, or new mums come to that, particularly English ones and in a 30+ degree heat. Still, my 3 days in a hot hospital with my mum (the night shift nurses aren’t overly keen on checking up on you which is why female relatives generally stay with you to help out) were soon over. I became quite well known as the signora Inglese and have since had people ask me if I speak to Melissa in English. When I reply that of course I do, some of them strangely ask me why.
“But your daughter’s Italian,” Said one woman who asked me that very question.
“Well half Italian and half English,” I corrected her.
“But she was born in Italy,” This woman continued as if that changed something. I decided not to say anything more to keep her quiet and to keep my sanity. Then there are those people who ask if Melissa is a boy or a girl. This, I might add, often happens when she’s wearing pink. The mind boggles.

I’m learning to perfect manoeuvring along the cobbled streets of Trani where I live as well as crossing the road which can sometimes be a hairy experience. However, with Italians being well-known for their love of children I have to say that car drivers are usually more inclined to stop when they see you with a pushchair.

My most-of-the-time content little girl is a joy to behold, well that’s until she’s hungry when she turns into a screaming banshee. If I can do bits of housework in between feeding times all well and good and I’m grateful that my husband Felice has a more open mentality than some southern Italian men and is a very hands-on dad.

Back to the language issue. I could be in for a bit of a battle with regards to speaking English with Melissa, particularly as everyone else around her (when we’re not with my relatives that is) will speak to her in Italian and probably a bit of local dialect too. But I’ve got a British bulldog spirit and have had some good advice from an Italian mum who lives in England who told me it’s best to only speak to Melissa in English and if she responds in Italian then I should simply ignore her until she repeats in English. When she’s at the talking stage, let battle commence! In the meantime, I’ve already started to sing (badly I might add) and read books to her, such as the Mr Men and Little Miss books. She seems to particularly like Mr Happy and I wonder if that’s because her dad’s name means happy in English?  Now I only need to encourage her dad to read to her in Italian and we’re well away. As Melissa grows up, she’ll have to adapt to two cultures, two climates, two languages and two mentalities and all we can do as her parents is to try and make sure that she gets the best of both worlds.

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